Photographer Yvan Cohen explores the humble surroundings of Chinese opera, which mask a world that is rich in colour and experiences.
Opera may be more commonly associated with grand venues – opulent concert halls with vast interiors and soaring ceilings – and its world-famous stars travelling the world to perform. Chinese opera, performed throughout Bangkok’s Chinatown is a departure from this – often hosted in pop-up venues by a troupe of nomadic singers – but is no less colourful for its smaller scale.
Photographer Yvan Cohen has spent years taking pictures behind the scenes, building a collection of images that lift the curtain on lives spent in this peculiar vocation.
“All the photos were taken in Bangkok at many different locations over a number of years,” he says. “These images are part of a broader collection I’ve been building that documents the Chinatown district of Bangkok and the lives of the people that live there.”
For a photographer, Chinese opera is a thrilling subject but Yvan was determined to deliver a different take. He also got to know the performers, discovering that many are in fact from Isan rather than China.
“Entire families live and travel with the opera. It’s very much a way of life,” Cohen says. “Despite their glamorous appearance on stage, the actors are very down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about their work – a sign of true professionalism perhaps. A lot of the performers are from poor backgrounds and come from the northeast.
“Many cast members don’t even speak Chinese – so they have to learn their lines by rote. Some of the actors have spent so much of their lives living with troupes that they’ve missed out on their education entirely.
“One manager of a troupe I met was a brilliant performer but was unable to read or write. There was a nice scene I saw where he was reading a voice-off part – except that he wasn’t reading the text at all, he had one of his actors whisper the text into his ear which he would then repeat out loud.”
Yvan Cohen is co-founder of LightRocket, a new online service by photographers for photographers to create websites and sell directly. See lightrocket.com